Kevin Plank has, to put it mildly, a demanding day job. He is the founder and CEO of Under Armour, and, just 20 years after he was selling shirts out of his grandmother's basement, his company ranks as the eighth-fastest-growing firm in America, with 12,000 employees and projected revenues of nearly $5 billion this year. At this rate, it should end Baltimore's Fortune 500 drought within the next couple of years. In and of itself, that rags-to-riches story (and to be clear, we're talking sweat-wicking, microfiber rags) merits recognition. But in 2016, Mr. Plank showed what it means when an entrepreneur of his skill, daring and ambition focuses not just on his company but on his community. In ways large and small, this city and state will never be the same because of what he accomplished. He is The Baltimore Sun's 2016 Marylander of the Year.
For some time, it had been clear that Mr. Plank was quietly buying up hundreds of acres of underused parcels in Baltimore's Port Covington neighborhood, presumably for a new headquarters for Under Armour, which is bursting at the seams of its Tide Point complex. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that he would envision something grander than an office park or even a fancy corporate campus. What he had in mind was the single largest development Baltimore has seen in decades, if ever: a multibillion-dollar mix of offices, residences, retail, parks, boat launches, a light rail spur and a pedestrian bridge. (The area includes The Sun's printing facility, for which the paper has a long-term lease.) In scope, the Inner Harbor is tiny by comparison. Situated just off Interstate 95 on the southern edge of town, the Port Covington development will replace travelers' first impression of Baltimore — currently, the smokestack on a trash incinerator — with a gleaming new city of the future.
After a decade in which it seemed like every crane in the Mid-Atlantic was rising above Washington while Baltimore fought over scraps, Mr. Plank's vision for Port Covington represented a massive vote of confidence in Baltimore and its future. But that would prove not to be the most remarkable thing about it.
As with just about every large redevelopment proposal in Baltimore, this one came with a request for public assistance. Mr. Plank's Sagamore Development asked the city for more than a half-billion dollars in tax increment financing to build infrastructure, to be paid back over decades from the increased property taxes the development would generate. Such deals have come under increasing scrutiny in Baltimore in recent years, particularly as it has become clear that they have hurt the city when it comes to state aid for education.
Sagamore officials conducted extensive outreach and struck Baltimore's largest-ever community benefits agreement with the neighborhoods around Port Covington, known as the South Baltimore Six. But that did little to mollify the anger among activists citywide who believed Baltimore was poised to approve a deal that would affect the whole city for decades with no meaningful commitments to help those residents most in need.
After tensions boiled over during a City Council work session in August, Sagamore sat down with representatives of Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development for an extraordinary period of negotiations that led to binding agreements on affordable housing, local hiring and job training the likes of which the city had never seen. Activists believe it set a standard against which all future subsidized development deals will be measured.
Mr. Plank wasn't at the negotiating table personally, but BUILD's clergy co-chair, the Rev. Glenna Huber, said his obvious commitment to Baltimore empowered BUILD to push harder for a transformational agreement without fear that he would pull up stakes and walk away from the city. "His team told us he was committed to Baltimore and was committed to doing what was right," she said.
Baltimore's chief entrepreneur
Pivotal though the Port Covington agreement was, it was by no means Mr. Plank's only significant achievement of 2016 when it comes to building a stronger Baltimore. He committed to bring a 1,000-job Under Armour e-commerce distribution facility to the Sparrows Point redevelopment. He started manufacturing rye whiskey in South Baltimore. His development company transformed the Recreation Pier in Fells Point into a luxury hotel, which is due to open in 2017. One of the horses from his Sagamore Farm even won a race at Pimlico on Preakness Day — the Old Bay Race, no less.
"He always pushes to make Baltimore the best it can be and tries to push people to see what Baltimore's potential is," said Donald C. Fry the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, on whose board Mr. Plank serves as vice chair. "When someone of his stature in the business world is putting this kind of commitment into Baltimore, it makes people take another look."
Meanwhile, Baltimore's most successful entrepreneur deepened his connections to the city's startup scene. His City Garage at Port Covington has helped expand Baltimore's makerspace community with an eye toward boosting local manufacturing, and his BetaMore incubator has continued to provide early-stage support for tech companies. It held its second annual Beta City pitch competition for startups this year, providing $50,000 to the winner, health tech company Tissue Analytics. Josh Budman, the company's co-founder and chief technology officer, said what set Beta City apart was the degree to which it was community-centric, bringing together people from a host of different industries, from finance to real estate, to help young companies grow. "Getting Kevin on the stage and him doing an awesome job, and getting our face on the map in Baltimore, gave us exposure to all those different kinds of individuals who can help with our business," Mr. Budman said.
Mr. Plank's charitable efforts also had a strong Baltimore focus. He donated $1 million each to the CollegeBound Foundation, which helps city students attend and complete college, and to the Partners in Excellence scholarship program for the city's Catholic schools. Jim Sellinger, the chancellor of the archdiocesan schools, said the funds are targeted to the system's four community schools, which are designed to provide opportunities to low-income students. This year, 85 students from 81 families are benefiting from Mr. Plank's support, he said. In East Baltimore, Mr. Plank teamed up with the Living Classrooms Foundation, on whose board he has served for a dozen years, to fund a new community center featuring state-of-the-art sports facilities — but also job training, education and wellness activities.
"For him to step up as he did over the last year to help us create this amazing facility ... is really transformative for the whole community," said Living Classrooms President and CEO James Piper Bond. "He saw the opportunity to do something that is really game-changing and a model for what can be done across the city and around the country."
Supporting the University of Maryland, College Park, Mr. Plank's alma mater, has also long been a priority for him. This year, the redevelopment of Cole Field House, which Mr. Plank supported with a $25 million pledge, began to take shape. It will feature an indoor football practice facility — something that's standard among the Terps' new Big Ten peers — but also will serve as the hub for a new research facility focused on concussions and other sports injuries. In a letter endorsing Mr. Plank as Marylander of the Year, UM President Wallace Loh and University System Chancellor Robert Caret wrote that his advocacy and involvement have helped elevate the school to "one of the nation's top research universities."
They added, "Kevin is an exemplary citizen of and a passionate visionary in the state of Maryland, committed to its people and its prosperity. It is hard to imagine anyone more deserving of the title of 'Marylander of the Year.'"
We couldn't agree more.